When do you think a book was last banned? In the 1930’s, books by Jews and Marxists were burned by the Nazis- you might remember similar scenes from The Book Thief. The Catholic church banned works by Gallileo and Charles Darwin, but in 1966 they abolished their list altogether. A lot has changed in the last 50 years, but books continue to be challenged- and even banned outright- on the grounds that they are too explicit for their target audience, usually children and teenagers. Last month, a novel called Into the River was banned in New Zealand. It has been removed from schools and public libraries and anyone caught selling it can be fined over £1,000. The novel is aimed at teenage boys, who read less than girls and score worse on literacy tests (according to the Literacy Trust) Why has New Zealand chosen to ban a book that boys could relate to and enjoy?
The group that opposed the publication of Into the River did so because the book contains “sexually explicit content”, “drug use”, and “a slang term for female genitalia”- topics that they deemed unsuitable for teenage readers. A number of arguments have since been put forward by the author, Ted Dawes, who taught teenagers for 40 years, and readers, who staged silent protests in libraries across the country. We take a look at some of these arguments below
The argument against: “It’s too violent/sexual/sweary for teens”
The argument for: “Context is important”
Let’s start by taking a look at one of the nominees for the 2015 Carnegie Medal. When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan features every bad word you can think of (and some that might have never crossed your mind!) This is because the novel’s narrator Dylan is a teenager with Tourette’s Syndrome, who cannot control his physical movements or vocalisations. The story follows Dylan as he tries to get through school and find a girlfriend, all whilst under the disruptive influence of his condition. Would the novel work without any swearing? It’s possible- not everyone with Tourette’s uses bad language. But how embarrassed would you be if you swore at your mum, your crush or your teacher, accidentally and without any provocation? When Mr Dog Bites does use swearing for comic effect, but Dylan often becomes embarrassed, upset and panicked as he struggles to control his behaviour. Books like When Mr Dog Bites can help us learn about people we might not otherwise come into contact with: people with disabilities like Dylan’s, which are high-profile but rare; minority groups like travellers, who are often the target of prejudice; survivors of abuse, who are not open about their history; and people in extraordinary situations, like trafficking victims, child soldiers or refugees. Books which improve our understanding and empathy usually take pride of place in libraries and schools- should language, sex or violence be a barrier to learning?
The argument against: “This book hasn’t won any awards! I want my children to read proper literature, not pulp fiction”
The argument for: “Who decides what counts as “proper literature”?”
Into the River is about a Maori boy who moves from his ancestral home to a boarding school in Auckland. An American novel with a similar theme, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has been top of the “most challenged” list since it was published in 2007. This journal reported that half of all young adult novels on that list are written by or feature people of colour. Are people more likely to object to books on minorities? The article quotes an activist who thinks black authors “are raising issues that people don’t want to deal with”, including sex, violence and abuse. There are also double standards which punish minorities for actions or traits deemed acceptable for white people. Take Miley Cyrus’ comments on Nicki Minaj, for example- the HuffPost explains why Nicki was right to challenge Miley.
The mainstream media usually fails to recognise people of colour- the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral in February 2015 when Twitter users boycotted the ceremony. Buffalo Soldier, which features a black protagonist, was awarded the 2015 Carnegie Medal by a panel of white judges– while this is a win for diversity in young adult literature, it isn’t the norm. Similarly, some controversial books have achieved wide literary acclaim- you can read about the difficult history of To Kill a Mockingbird here. Into the River could be a future classic- don’t judge a book by the medal on the cover.
The argument against: “Young readers need adult guidance- what if they read something that upsets or frightens them?”
The argument for: “It’s simple- everyone is different.”
A short story- By the time I was 8 or so, I was a serious bookworm. My dad, who was often busy with work and didn’t have much time for reading, told me about a book he had read many years ago: 1984 by George Orwell. He could still remember the story in great detail, especially the part where Winston is tortured in Room 101. My dad’s vivid descriptions haunted my nightmares for years, and I didn’t read the book until I was in Sixth Form.
My point is: My dad saw that I loved reading and recommended a book that, in hindsight, is not suitable for an 8 year old. Despite being asked by an adult to read 1984, I refused- at 8 years old, I already knew my own limits. Some children and teenagers will actively seek out provocative novels, and some won’t. Others might start a book, then put it away when they get confused or scared. Is it better to ban a book, or let people- even small people!- make their own choices?
Into the River has been featured in the Guardian , the Independent and the BBC, and will soon be published in the US. It is certain to reach a wide audience- just not within New Zealand. If you’d like to read Into the River, you can buy a copy from the Kindle Store. For more banned books, check out our display in the Information Store before Monday 5th October
You can find the list of this year’s most challenged young adult books on the Banned Books Week website
Number one on the list is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (QUICK READS 823.91 ALE)
This book has featured highly on the list since its publication in 2007. Part-Time Indian is based on the life of author Sherman Alexie, who was bullied throughout school because of a disability caused by a childhood illness. Like Alexie, narrator Junior lives on a reservation, or “Rez”: a poorly-funded patch of land allocated to Native Americans. Many of the residents are unemployed and alcohol-dependent, including his father, older sister and brother-in-law. Junior is acutely aware of his disadvantages, and snaps when he finds his school textbooks are thirty years out-of-date. A sympathetic teacher helps Junior transfer to a wealthy, all-white school, but his family can barely pay for gas to get him there. Junior had rejected the violent ‘macho’ culture on the Rez but he refuses to fall victim to white bullies and badly beats the leader of their gang. While he earns their respect, his Native friends turn their backs on Junior.
In second place is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (NORFOLK HOUSE 741.5944 SAT), an autobiography in graphic novel form. Iranian punk Marjane is sent to study in Europe after her home is destroyed in a bombing raid. Overwhelmed and excited by her new-found freedom, she starts drinking, smoking, having sex and dealing drugs. She ends up homeless, attempts suicide, gets arrested, and gets a divorce- but Marjane is also a talented student, an artist, historian, philosopher and activist.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (BOOK ZONE 823.92 HOS) is part of the English A-Level syllabus and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years. It takes third place on the most challenged list due to homosexuality, drug abuse and religious extremism, but is widely praised for its complex depiction of family loyalty, class and racial tension.
Both novels have been adapted into films. Persepolis is rated 15 and can be found in the DVD LOBBY 791.433. The Kite Runner, rated 12A, is in the BOOK ZONE 823.92 HOS
The COM Library Banned book mark image accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/comlibrary/ on 24/09/2015
florian.b Against Banned Books accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/florian_b/ on 24/09/2015
Timberland Regional Library Banned Books Display At the Lacey Library accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/timberland/ on 24/09/2015
Hillary, M War is Peace accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/12296057236/in/photostream/ on 02/10/2015